SANTA MARIA, Calf. - The Santa Maria High School Racing Team isn't your typical driver's education class. It may have some similar characteristics, but the after-school program isn't teaching kids how to drive. Instead, it's teaching them how to drag race.
"The race team is a fantastic program," said senior crew chief Christopher Salce. "From the surface, it may look like all we do is build cars and race, but we're actually teaching real life skills on how to be an adult, how to talk to other adult, how to prepare for a possible job, even if not in this automotive field, we build skills that you could bring to any other job interview."
Students don't actually drive the team's race car. That responsibility belongs to former team member Angelina Martinez.
Drivers must be at least 18-years-old and having graduated. What the program does allow is to give the students a real-life professional drag racing experience.
"It's entirely up to us to build the car and to prep it for the race and at the race track we're responsible for maintaining it, fixing any problems it may develop and tuning the car to run better on the track," said Salce.
Created in 2007 by former drag racer Art Foster, who is a Santa Maria High School alumnus, the program is a one-of-a-kind team that competes in the American Nostalgia Racing Association.
"They (other drivers) definitely have a lot of years and experience on all of us, but it's one heck of a challenge, but it you just look at it as a place to prove yourself and see what you can do and prove it on the grandest stage in the world," said Salce.
The team races a 1974 Mercury Comet. It's a car that's doing more than just simply competing against veteran professional drivers.
"They'll come up to me after a race, like the last last race where I beat two previous champions, and they're like I didn't think that car had it in it," said Martinez.
The car is competitive on the drag strip thanks to the hard work of the students, including many who start the program without having any prior automotive experience.
"It gives an amazing rush when you see that car go down the track," said freshman team member Gabriela Santos. "When you hear it start up, when you work on it, when you put those parts and you install it to the point where it takes off. The feeling that you're getting is a sense of pride, you're just waiting, you're heart is pounding, so when that car starts and it's purring, it's amazing."
Safety is strictly enforced and team members are held to high standards.
"To stay on this team, you need to have a 3.5 GPA, you need to be responsible and respective to adults. No alcohol, no drugs, nothing like that," said Santos.
The team is totally self-sufficient, meaning they are completely on their own for funding the whole operation.
"The high school gives us no funding," Salce said. "We fund raise all of our funds we need to use to race and we need a lot of it because racing is not cheap. It's a great opportunity to do it. We have to fund raise all the time, it's not stop, handshake, pitch your team, pitch what you need and see what other companies and people might be able to help you out with."
The responsibility of operating a genuine drag racing team, as well as the fundraising aspect, gives students an educational operations far beyond what they would find inside a classroom.
"We're actually teaching real life skills on how to be an adult, how to talk to other adult, how to prepare for a possible job," said Salce. "We build skills that you could bring to any other job interview."
Right now, it's a job well done. The team placing just 4th recently out of 50 cars at the season opening race at the Famoso Raceway near Bakersfield.
"It's pretty amazing the things you get to do, the experiences you have and I wouldn't give this experience us for anything really," said Santos.